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A broken country's broken heart: tempers flare in Texas, Congress after mass shooting

WASHINGTON — Over two days, in two acts, the small southwest Texas town of Uvalde has been the unwitting global stage for a real-world illustration of the defining tension in American life.
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Democrat Beto O"Rourke, who is running against Abbott for governor this year, interrupts a news conference headed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Dario Lopez-Mills

WASHINGTON — Over two days, in two acts, the small southwest Texas town of Uvalde has been the unwitting global stage for a real-world illustration of the defining tension in American life.

Act 1 came Tuesday, when an 18-year-old gunman, armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, killed 19 preteen children and two teachers in a fourth-grade classroom before dying himself at the hands of law enforcement.

Wednesday saw the second act: Beto O'Rourke, the former congressman and upstart Texas progressive, jabbing an angry finger at Republican rival Gov. Greg Abbott, accusing him of not doing what is needed to prevent a recurring tragedy.

"This is on you," O'Rourke said to Abbott, Calgary-born Republican Sen. Ted Cruz standing sentry behind him, while Lt.-Gov. Dan Patrick shouted back, accusing O'Rourke of choosing the worst possible time to try to score political points.

"In each case, we say this isn't the time. Now is the time, literally right now," a visibly agitated O'Rourke said outside the auditorium. Most Texans and most Americans happen to agree with him, he added.

"The majority of Texas is not reflected by that governor, or those people around that table who talk about mental health care, or say this was pure evil, or that it was absolutely unpredictable," O'Rourke railed.

"This is predictable. It will happen, and it will continue to happen, unless we change course. We've got to change course."

Outside the U.S., the outpouring of grief and sympathy also followed a familiar pattern. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said all of Canada was grieving with Texas after what he called a "terrible, terrible day."

"As a parent, I'm going to have to go home to my kids, including my eight-year-old, and talk to them again about the inexplicable school shooting that we saw in the United States," Trudeau said Wednesday in Saskatoon.

But on American soil, the too-familiar horror had already given way to unbridled anger — even from some unexpected quarters — about how key legislators remain loyal to the unmatched financial influence of the gun lobby.

"We're being held hostage by 50 senators in Washington who refuse to even put it to a vote, despite what we, the American people, want," said Steve Kerr, the head coach of the NBA's Golden State Warriors, before Tuesday's playoff game against the Dallas Mavericks.

"They won't vote on it, because they want to hold on to their own power. It's pathetic."

The attack came less than two weeks after a gunman killed 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y. And it echoed the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newtown, Conn., which killed 20 children and six adults. It stands to this day as a monument to a divided country's inability to protect its own people.

It also laid bare one of the most persistent chasms in American life in the 21st century: the gulf between those willing to defend their right to bear arms at any cost, and those who insist the cost is already too great.

That chasm was on clear display Wednesday in Uvalde.

"There are family members who are crying as we speak; there are family members whose hearts are broken," Abbott said as O'Rourke was escorted out of the auditorium.

"There's no words that anybody shouting can come up here and do anything to heal those broken hearts."

Tensions were also running high in Washington, D.C., where it was mostly Democrats who turned out for Wednesday's Senate confirmation hearing for Steven Dettelbach to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives.

If confirmed, Dettelbach would be the first permanent appointee to the position in seven years, a delay largely attributable to tensions between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to firearms.

One of the few Republicans on hand, Utah's Mike Lee, went so far as to accuse gun-control advocates of trying to capitalize on the Uvalde tragedy as a fundraising opportunity.

"The left once again is calling for more gun control," Lee said. "They want to crack down on law-abiding Americans and federal firearms licensees who want to follow the law, instead of armed criminals."

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy promptly accused Lee of blaming the victims, "not the person who's able to walk in and buy a weapon that should be used in a war zone, not in a school zone."

"The kind of weapons being used by the Russians in Ukraine have no place in school," he said. "It's not the time to blame the victims. It's time to blame those who sell weapons of war this way."

President Joe Biden said much the same thing later in the day during an appearance at the White House, where he confirmed plans to travel to Texas in the coming days to meet with the families of the victims.

"When in God's name will we do what needs to be done to — if not completely stop — fundamentally change the amount of carnage that goes on in this country?" he said.

Meaningful gun control in the U.S. needn't pose a threat to the constitutional right to bear arms — a right, he added, that has more wiggle room than most people might realize.

"The Second Amendment is not absolute," Biden said. "When it was passed, you couldn't own a cannon, you couldn't own certain kinds of weapons. There's always been limitations."

He hinted at the possibility of resurrecting a ban on assault weapons, something former president Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994 before it expired 10 years later. Subsequent efforts to bring it back have all failed.

"These actions we've taken before have saved lives," Biden said. "They can do it again."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2022.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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